Back when people cared about such things, there were two schools of thought on how and why the Australian comedy boom of the late 1980s took place. The first school said that, thanks to an expanding culture of live performance both in university revues and dedicated venues, pretty much everyone with an interest in comedy was able to develop their talents to the fullest. Then when television came calling it found a vast group of highly trained people able to create material that connected with viewers, creating an expanding market for comedy that resulted in a string of shows that captured the general public’s attention, such as The Comedy Company, The Big Gig, Fast Forward and the various D-Generation series.
The second school said that it was mostly due to the format: a bunch of sketches, some filmed before an audience, some filmed outside, maybe with a framing device to hold it together. That’s the school that gave us Skithouse, Comedy Inc, Comedy Inc: The Late Shift, Totally Full Frontal, Big Bite, Double Take, Flipside, The Sideshow, The Wedge, Let Loose Live, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting and The Comedy Sale. Guess which school Wednesday Night Fever comes from?
The thing that’s easy to forget looking backwards at the comedy boom from today is that those comedians were largely trying to adapt comedy skills they’d honed elsewhere to the needs of television. They were already funny: they just had to figure out the best way to be funny on television. Obviously some formats have a better track run than others, and if you’re doing sketches it’s a really big help to have a format where you don’t have to end every sketch on a strong punchline. But it’s telling that all the really great and successful comedy shows on Australian television – your Micallef P(r)ogram(me)s, your Frontlines, even at a pinch your Summer Heights Highs – have come about when talented people have been able to shape the format to whatever suits their particular comedy talents the best.
Of course, it helps to have some comedy talents in the first place.
Look, we could tell pretty much right out the gate what they were trying for with this show, mostly because that cold open of “this show is proudly brought to you by…” is exactly the way a lot of those old D-Generation specials for Channel Seven opened back in the late 1980s. And as avowed long-time fans of that particular, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks format, we didn’t really have any big problems with them re-using that format.
[we’re guessing we’re going to be pretty much alone there, mind you. Much as comedy fans like to hail the late 80s as a golden age, there are just as many people (if not more) who consider comparing a show to Fast Forward to be a fatal insult. Those kind of people should be ignored: just because a format is old doesn’t mean it can’t still work in the right hands]
Our disappointment with Wednesday Night Fever began with the very first one of those jokes, when Wikipedia was cited as being wildly inaccurate. Which isn’t just a cheap joke, it’s an untrue joke: pretty much every study we could find in five minutes of looking rated Wikipedia as about as good as any other source of information on the net. And this was the very first joke on the show. A joke that relied on a cheap gag based on an inaccurate view that was current around 2007. When Get This was making Wikipedia jokes. That were actually funny.
This was a problem that ran on through the night. The format was cheap and cheerful, but great! We like that in a comedy! Then Sammy J made a joke about just wanting all the political turmoil over so we could have a Parliament that got things done. Except that anyone who was actually paying attention to politics in this country – actual politics, not just the view you got from half-watching Channel Seven news – knew that the Gillard government actually did get a fair amount done over the last three years. But that was just in the real world, and making jokes about that place is hard.
Then Paul McCarthy came out and did a Rudd impression that was just a checklist of things we already knew about Rudd. He uses painful “youth” slang? Check. He’s sweary? Check. He talks about consultation then tells people to piss off? Check. Shouldn’t an impersonation have you thinking “I never noticed that but that’s so true”, not “thanks for telling me something I already knew”?
You could see the back-of-the-cardie-is-sweary joke about the “reconciliation” between Rudd and Gillard – oh yeah, “Gillard” was in the audience – coming a mile off, but that kind of thing is hardly a problem if the end joke is good. And for a few moments the idea of having (fake) Rudd and Gillard together on stage was almost kind of exciting. Where’s this going to go? Well, they swore at each other a bit – fuck, does Wednesday Night Fever love the swears – and that was it. “What’s Mandarin for ‘get fucked’” Gillard said. And Rudd knew what it was! And said it! That was a thing that just happened on Australian television in 2013.
“Celebrity Whores” was where the lightbulb went off over our heads. It was a sketch that set its’ sights on a target audience that was, er… ill-informed? And proud of it? Ruby Rose looks like a boy? Shane Warne saying to Kim Kardasian “didn’t I do you once in a car park in Vegas”? Kardasian pronouncing Kanye as “Cunt-ae”? These are not jokes you make if you have the slightest interest in opening your audiences’ eyes to anything. These are jokes you make if you want to confirm their prejudices. Their nasty, small-minded, offensive, idiotic prejudices.
As we’re not exactly fans of jokes that intentionally set out to flatter stupid people, much of the rest of the first episode of Wednesday Night Fever was not to our taste. The astonishingly mis-judged “Justice” character – yeah, the idea that someone would wrongly complain about workplace bullying is hilarious, because that happens all the time – was kind of interesting, in so far as it felt like a way to do Mad as Hell character Vomitoria Catchment completely wrong. And the “Quentin Tarantino” character in the Clive Palmer promo sketch reminded us a heck of a lot of Peter Moon, which wasn’t a bad thing right up until we started wishing we were actually watching Peter Moon. And we like Peter Moon.
Fellow diners suggested to us that this weeks show was going to have to be at least slightly re-written at the last minute thanks to the recent upheaval in Canberra, so perhaps the wonky Rudd impression could be forgiven. Then again, the final musical number from Gillard seemed fairly polished, so maybe these guys can turn stuff around in a short period of time. Which would be even more depressing, as that song’s big punchline was “my dream’s soaked in ALP”. A joke about piss, thank you very much.
It would be lazy criticism to attack this show for being broad or old-fashioned. In a lot of ways it is, but that’s a clear stylistic decision made by the creators, who’ve set out to make a show that harks back to the “golden age” of Australian comedy. You can dislike the show for that -we don’t, feel free to disagree – but it’s not a failing of the show itself: it’d be like complaining that Who Wants to be a Millionaire isn’t more like Deal or No Deal.
It’d also be lazy to take a swipe at the cast, most of whom weren’t really given a whole lot of time to shine. Paul McCarthy and Amanda Bishop wheeled out impersonations they’d done previously elsewhere with much the same result: as they were hired to do those impressions, clearly the result we got was what was intended. Everyone else was tasked with playing it broad and blunt, and they hit the mark. Just like he did on the probably-better-than-this-if-we-think-about-it sketch version of Good News Week, Sammy J came off best, and hopefully his role will expand in coming weeks – he’s too good to keep in a straight man host role.
Where the wheels totally came off this blunt nothing of a show was in the writing, which never failed to sniff out an opportunity to make cheap, obvious shots at cheap, obvious targets. Making a joke that Ruby Rose looks like a boy? In 2013? What the fuck was that all about? Justice has a “mother” who’s a man? Wow, those crazy feminists, right guys? And why was Julie Bishop stumbling around blindly in the utterly baffling and seemingly endless “Downton Abbott”? Oh right, she’s entirely defined by the “fact” she has a bung eye. The promos for this show said nothing was sacred. Seems that meant having Julia Gillard sing “I was asked if Tim was gay – have you ever seen Thérèse?” Jesus wept.
Time and time and time again the jokes in this show – the ones not based on insults or swearing – were lazy and obvious. Let’s look at just one: having Rudd say “I love abortions. Just love ’em” as an attempt to win over the women’s vote. There’s no joke there. Oh, it seems like there’s one about Rudd wanting to win back women after giving Gillard the arse, but when you look closer (or just think about it for a second) that joke vanishes because it was never really there – not without more of a build-up, not without more context, not without a set-up to make it a punchline. No, the joke there was simple: they wanted to have the current Prime Minister of Australia saying “I love abortions”. Comedy, ladies and gentlemen.
Too often the jokes on this show flattered the audience’s ignorance. Too many times the jokes on this show felt like they’d been in a drawer since 2009 (Shane Warne is still a sex pest? Ruby Rose still has short hair? Pulp Fiction is still a thing?). Nothing here was surprising. Nothing here even tried to be surprising. Yes, it was a show built largely on impressions. But when your impression of Kyle Sandilands is “look, he’s got chickens stuck on his hands BECAUSE HE LIKES FOOD BECAUSE HE’S FAT”, you need to do better.
There’s six more weeks of this, and as it’s recorded week to week there’s plenty of opportunity for it to improve. At this stage we don’t think it will improve, because it seems clear to us that the writing and producing staff made exactly the kind of show they wanted to make. And as one of the producers behind Wednesday Night Fever has already been hired to be the new Head of Comedy at the ABC, this is clearly the direction the ABC want to take their narrative comedy in the future. Wednesday Night Fever is the future of comedy at the ABC. The future.
We’re not sure how much more of this we can take.